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Sam North

Miami Beach grew quickly now and acquired a reputation for attracting sporty gentlemen and attractive husband hunting girls.

Building a paradise out of a swamp

More than a hundred years now, when the concept of a vacation was young, Miami was discovered, exploited and smeared with concrete.

After Henry Flagler built his famous Royal Poinciana resort hotel there it effectively helped people realise that a fortune could be made providing hotels and homes for people who wanted 'winter' in the warmth, or retire from the harsh northern climate. Sometime after Coconut grove got its start in 1913, a bridge was built over to Collins Street on the sand spit across the bay. Old Man Collins had bought this land in 1909 to grow tropical fruit, mangoes, avocados and new Irish potatoes. But it took the arrival of the land developer Carl Fisher, owner of the Indianapolis Speedway to recognise what South Beach needed was vision, land clearing, shaping, mouldling, roads and a highway to bring people to it. Highways were his business. He knew, more than most at that time, that highways were America's future, just as the railroad had been its past. South Beach was born. It was a bigger task than he thought. The whole spit was thick with mangrove swamps and all of this had to be levelled, filled in and covered with top soil from the Everglades, then planted over with coconut trees, royal palms, Australian pines (which grew 14ft a year) , avocado trees, bougainvillea, orchids, poinciana, hibiscus and oleanders. He completely terraformed the landscape and as the beach grew, he had himself a paradise island out of a swamp.

Nevertheless, things didn't take off immediately. Perhaps it was the World War, but people didn't seem in the mood to invest in lots on South Beach. Fisher tried giving away lots, even trying to give away Atlantic ocean lots to the hotelier who'd build the first million dollar hotel , but got no takers. Instead Fisher built attractions such as the famous Roman Pools and Casino and the crowds finally came and big mansions in Beaux-Arts style were starting to be built by rich industrialists.

The first big hotel went up in 1921. The Flamingo had cost $2 million, a record at the time and it was the first real resort having a yacht anchorage, an Oriental tea garden, tennis courts, shops, a men's club, a broker's office and a barn with forty Guernsey cows that supplied the hotel with fresh milk. Nevertheless, Fisher still need to recoup his huge investment. He had dug himself a major financial hole and he didn't start to make big money until 1923 when he introduced Polo to South Beach. This brought the right kind of moneyed sporty crowd. These in turn demanded classy hotels and Polo Clubs, big lots for their mansions on the Atlantic or overlooking Biscayne Bay; and following them came their friends to see what all the fuss was about.

Miami Beach grew quickly now and acquired a reputation for attracting sporty gentlemen and attractive husband hunting girls. All the time Fisher was working the publicity machine, selling lots, developing sub divisions and other land sellers were getting in on the act selling Florida as this peaceful, sunny, unspoiled investment where would could expect to make a ten percent return per annum on land or property. From all over the USA everyone came to winter in Florida and development and 'lots parties' were held everyday. Banks seemed to mushroom everywhere and the boom grew in strength.

In 1926 came the famous Hurricane that stopped all development in its tracks for a while. Suddenly people realised that forces of nature could destroy whole cities and drown a lot of people. On September 17th 1926 a second hurricane hit Miami and Miami beach and winds of 125 mph battered the city. One hundred and thirteen people died, hundreds were injured by flying timber,glass and collapsing buildings and thousands of homes hastily built in boomtimes were just blown away or disintegrated.

The next few years saw people defaulting on loans, surrendering land and when the stock market crashed in '29, Florida vacations were the last thing on anyones minds. Florida banks crashed and the beach was littered with unfinished skyscrapers and ghost town sub-divisions. The next surge in building occurred post 1931 after gambling was legalised. After all, depression or not, people still needed vacations. Sixty million people lived within 30 hours of Miami, city fathers told themselves that eventually the money would come back. Horse racing and Casinos would be the way to fetch them in. When it did, they came back in a rush. From the tip of South beach to 68th street, streamlined hotel were thrown up to cope with the new style of visitor. The hotels such as The Berkley were influenced by the style leader of the age the sleek and fast Atlantic Ocean Liners, France and Queen Elizabeth. Hotels and apartments were built to emulate these icons of leisure, complete with completely redundant masts and funnels. Hotels like The Essex, now restored to its glory days. Everyone went there. Damon Runyon made it his winter home and he loved the exotic nature, the scarlet hibiscus crawling over garden walls, purple bougainvillea climbing around windows and '..palm trees whispering mysteriously, and tall melalucas nodding their plumed heads to every breeze, and birds singing in the quiet mornings'.

It was estimated that by the mid-thirties around six hundred millionaires were wintering in Florida among them household names such as Maytag, Hoover, Florsheim, Hertz, Firestone. Getting there in the thirties required a thirty hour trip aboard the Silver Meteor or the Florida Special which left New York for Miami every day. One way coach was $22.48 in 1936 and Pullman (Ist Class) $41.45. Dinner southern style 50 cents. Trains include valets, maids, club cars where passengers could dance to a five piece 'Hawaiian' band. Miami Beach was in essence a richman's playground. A clubman's paradise.

The merely well off could stay in the hotels to winter, frolic on the beach or promenade around 68th street, but the really rich had villas and Clubs like the Bath Club and Surf Club to go to where they held lavish theme parties during the season. Mountains of snow would be imported, no expense spared, and Prize Fight Diners, with fighters picked up at five bucks a round. The depression was a great time to be rich. The most ostentatious place to show your wealth was Lincoln Road where you could stroll past Saks, Miligrims, Peck and Peck - the Fifth Avenue of the South. The Sael and Jabaly dress store on Lincoln Road was already fancier than anything on offer in Europe and Greenleaf and Crosby store was so smart they served tea or champagne as models paraded clothes for you. The best Cinema was on Lincoln Road, the Colony, which served afternoon tea on the balcony overlooking the avenue. At night you could go to Eddie Cantor's show at the Fleetwood Hotel, read about the gangsters who went to watch it in Runyon's column the next day.

The place to go to be seen was the Cafe de La Paix on the beachfront beside the Hotel Roney Plaza - relentlessly promoted by the broadcaster Walter Winchell. Here you'd find Al Jolson, Irving Berlin. Another nightspot was The Palm Island Club owned by the bootlegger Bill Dwyer. Earl Carrol ran the nightclub which featured '36 of the most beautiful girls in the world'. The depression never really happened in South Beach and if one set of millionaires went bust, another set would take their place. The Jewish population of New York found their way there slowly at first, facing resistance from the entrenched 'gentile' population, but then as more gained a foothold, it became their own. In 1922 there were perhaps just twenty Jewish families living on South Beach, by 1940 there were 28,012 in a census count and with it they had brought a massive building boom, building hotels all the way up the beach from Ist Street and the style they preferred most of all was modern. They didn't want anything to do with the past. Streamlined Art Deco was the way. Hotels such as the Penguin, Nemo, Astor, Seymour, Nassua, Nash, Ritter, New La Flora. Everyone of these hotels designed to look as if they could launch into the ocean anytime and cruise at 50 knots. Everything created to feel and look like an Astaire and Rogers movie. The most desired strip was between fifth and fourteenth avenue, then as now, the only part of South beach that has style and grace with places like the newly restored and hugely elegant Tides Hotel overlooking the beach. New York had decided Miami South Beach was where you came for the winter. No quick trip either. It had to be a month at the least and if you couldn't afford a hotel at $5 a day, there were low rent apartments on Washington Boulevard with rooms for a dollar a day.

Even as Europe was in the grip of war in 1940, that year saw Miami Beach throw up 40 new hotels and 313 new homes. It was also coincidentally the divorce destination of choice. You only had to be resident for 90 days...

From the beginning of the great 'international' architectural style of the 1950s, South Beach began to resemble an airport and that is what Collins Avenue looks like today. Eden Roc is as tasteless as the people who went there. Collins Avenue is just Manhattan and Brooklyn by the beach and even strolling by the beach was a problem as hotels built right out into it. By the seventies the beach had disappeared, the groins people had built to save the beach actually made it worse. Rents fell, hotels like the Fontenbleau went bust, property prices fell. Miami was becoming the low rent dumping ground of the USA. The art deco hotels were being torn down by developers ignorant of their architectural merit. Miami was the vice capital, seedy, unfashionable. Miami Beach - they built a paradise and everyone came, but like chocolate it congealed to a gooey mess. In the seventies its reputation was that it was only for old people and if you wanted fun you had to go to the Islands or California.

It took the Army Corps to restore the beach around 1982, giving back some dignity to the old place. Then suddenly people were becoming aware that they had treasure in their midst in all these glorious 30's hotels in Spanish Mediterranean and Art Deco styles between the ocean and Lenox Avenue on Biscayne Bay. Historic preservation was a new idea in America then, but here was the beginning of a life raft for Miami. To live, it must regenerate and restore the best of the old. The TV show Miami Vice shot around these old hotels between 1984 and '86 showing their vivid colours, suddenly popularised them and the money to restore these old places suddenly began to flood in. South Beach was on its way to becoming a cool place again, almost 85 years after Carl Fisher had reclaimed it from the swamps.
Old Miami

And it is cool as all those super model fashion shoots will testify. The sea is still there, the waves just as dramatic, the pelicans still drift by, the mullet still leap out of the sea. Young people wearing precious little walk or skate by. It is a place reinventing itself. Style is returning and with it people demand better food, better service and they seem to have money to burn. All the key style retailers are there. Banana Republic is situated in a Bank on Lincoln and the London restaurant Ballans is nearby, proving that someone is banking on its continued success. The galleries and sidewalk cafes feel so European. Carl Fisher would be so happy it he could see. Versace's mansion is there too, attracting the ghouls. Lincoln Road and Ocean Boulevard are once again the key places to stroll.

Lincoln has a great new Regal Cinema with many screens. Washington Street and Collins between 5th and 16th are filling up with trendy little places, Gap and Kenneth Cole and the road is clogged with brightly coloured new VW Beetles and Minis. Welcome to Miami goes the song. May the revival continue.

© Sam North 2001
Author of Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles
The Sam North Novels

See also by Sam - Florida Hurricanes - Irene

Old Florida

You can read in detail all about the development of Miami Beach in the wonderful book by Ann Armbruster 'The Life and Times of Miami Beach' ISBN 0-394-57052-9 Alfred A Knopf, Publisher, New York. $45 1995 For updates on hotels, weather, resorts, and all Florida info visit

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